Violence and Peace
May 16, 2004
Over the last number of months, we have become accustomed to the sad news of injury and death coming out of Iraq. Both American and Iraqi lives have been lost in the unfolding of this war. But over the last week our sadness has been compounded as we have faced shocking photographs that capture sexual and psychological abuse exercised by Americans upon their Iraqi prisoners.
I trust that these terrible actions are limited to a handful of individuals. I know that the vast majority of American servicewomen and men continue to serve their country with honor. Yet these shocking pictures have undermined our moral authority in the world, have shaken us personally, and have invited further reflection upon this war in which we are engaged. This homily is aimed to be a contribution to that reflection.
I do not aim to make political judgments or attempt to place blame. I certainly do not seek to analyze strategic or military options. All of these matters are well outside of my competence, and settings other than this Eucharist would better serve as an forum for such discussions. But what is appropriate to this setting, to this Eucharist at which we gather this morning, is for us to ask ourselves, “What spiritual insight, what moral lesson can we derive from these sad circumstances?”
To me, one is obvious: violence begets violence. It is easier to start a war than to end one. It is easier to unleash violence than it is to control it. Once the bombs begin to fall and the blood begins to flow, once the shock and awe rolls out, there is no guarantee that we can make the violence that we begin do our bidding or limit its impact only to our noblest intentions. To quote a famous American general, “War is hell”.
Now the Christian tradition has always recognized this truth. From the beginning of our history there has been a grave suspicion over the use of violence. Jesus refused to let his disciples to take up arms to prevent his arrest. For the first couple of centuries of the Church’s life, serving in the military and being a Christian were seen as incompatible. Over time, the tradition came to recognize that there are circumstances in which violence can be justified. But it has always maintained that those circumstances are limited, and violence can only be employed in self-defense. This deep suspicion of violence is what motivated John Paul II and the American bishops to join their voices to many other religious leaders over a year ago as America considered entering this war. They raised grave concerns, asking whether the threat to American safety was real and imminent enough to warrant the invasion of Iraq. They knew that violence begets violence.
The question for us today is whether we know and appreciate that truth. There are many voices in our society that would present violence to us as a solution, and an easy one at that. Look at the films that entertain us. Routinely a violent enemy is eliminated by a hero using an even greater amount of violence. When is the last time that the plot of a major American film was resolved by negotiation? In business it seems to be more and more acceptable to use coercion and manipulation to make a profit. As long as we can produce a successful outcome, the means are not that important.
Yet violence is not a solution, certainly not an easy one. Rather, it is a dangerous option that is just as likely to undermine us as to save us. Violence begets violence, even if its aim is to achieve peace.
That is why Jesus’ words in today’s gospel should ring in our ears with authority. For Jesus says that he has a peace to give us that is very different than the peace that the world would seek to establish. Those words remind us that our attitudes should be distinct, different from the cultural values of our society. We should direct our lives from the gospels, rather than from the opinion polls that regularly guide our country’s course.
To follow Jesus is to be a people who carry a deep suspicion of violence and who refuse to use violence in our personal lives. We should reject strategies of manipulation and coercion in our workplace and in our families. We should struggle against the cynicism that advises that the only language people understand is force. We should not suppose that simply because we have power, we have the right to use it in any way we choose.
War is still hell. The disturbing pictures we have seen this week are a small reminder of how all sides can be corrupted by its influence. In a world of increasing violence, you and I are called to follow the Prince of Peace. Violence begets violence. What do wisdom and patience and love beget? A peace that only Jesus can give.
Trusting the Spirit of Love
May 13, 2007
Mothers are not perfect. That might seem like a rather blunt and negative way to begin a homily on Mother’s Day. But it is not my intention to single mothers out for any kind of criticism. I can just as easily say that fathers are not perfect, sons and daughters are not perfect, pastors are not perfect. None of us are fully the people we need to be. Each one of us, at one time or another, gets things wrong, makes a bad decision, and ends up hurting the people close to us. To be human is in some sense to be flawed, and those flaws invariably cause disappointment, regret, and pain in our lives.
Now this is nothing new. Today’s first reading makes it very clear that there were plenty of flaws in the early church. Just a few years after Jesus’ resurrection, the church was already deeply divided over the issue of whether Gentiles needed to be circumcised or not. The apostles were at odds with each other. Peter and Paul and James clashed and insisted that the others were being stubborn in their opinion. So from the very start the church, like every other human institution, was marked by disagreement, disappointment, regret, and pain that flowed from its all too human members.
The same is true for us. We are not perfect, and yet we are called to love one another. We are not perfect, and yet we are expected to be family and friends and community. So how are we to negotiate this loving across all the flaws which characterize every one of us? There is no simple answer to that question. There is no single formula of loving that will fit every situation. When someone disappoints us, when somebody makes a decision with which we do not agree, when someone hurts us, what should we do? Should we bite our lip, say nothing, and let things slide? Sometimes. Should we stand up, object, and demand that things change? Sometimes. Should we make a decision that the relationship is so flawed, so painful, that we cannot continue in it? Sometimes. Each one of us must discern and decide on a case-by-case basis how we can negotiate loving others who are all as flawed as we are.
Jesus knows we need that kind of freedom. We need that flexibility in loving. Jesus commands us to love one another, but he is not specific on what love looks like in each situation. When it comes to loving, Jesus does not give us a blue-print, he gives us a person, the Holy Spirit. Jesus says in today’s gospel, that an advocate, the Holy Spirit, will be sent to us to teach us everything we need to know, to show us how we are to love in a flawed world. That Holy Spirit is with us and guides us. That spirit is always active, prompting us to be realistic and to be brave.
The Holy Spirit asks us to be realistic in loving because we are all flawed people. Therefore in loving we have to be willing to make allowances, even when other persons are not who we want them to be. Even when they disappoint us and hurt us, the Spirit of God asks us whether our love can be of such a kind to overcome those faults and disappointments. If any of us will insist that we have to be loved perfectly, then lasting human love is impossible. So the Holy Spirit asks us to be realistic, to make allowances.
The spirit also asks us to be brave. When we have tried over and over again to love and have not been successful, when our efforts in loving are not helpful but harmful, then the spirit asks us to speak up and to ask that things change. The spirit may even ask us to consider whether a particular relationship should come to an end. It is never easy to speak up, to insist that another person needs to change. Nor is it easy to live with the consequences of such a decision. But at times it is necessary. And when it is necessary, the Spirit of God asks us to be brave enough to make that choice.
Jesus asks us to love one another, to be mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, friends and partners in life. But none of us is perfect and that makes loving difficult. That is why Jesus gives us his spirit to lead us and guide us. That is why we have an Advocate who leads us to be realistic and brave. Let us follow the spirit that we might love—if not easily, honestly; if not perfectly, in such a way that is real enough that we can be family and friends and community to one another.
A Divine Partnership
May 6, 2013
John 14: 23-29
We would not be here today, if we did not believe that we have a relationship with God. But there has been a significant amount of theological discussion over the centuries on how this relationship functions, especially when it comes to getting things done. When some good thing needs to happen in our world or when some evil thing needs to be stopped the question is, “Whose responsibility is it to act: God or ours?”
Now certainly God has more power to act. We believe in a God who is involved in our lives and in human history, shaping the course of human events, changing hearts, and bringing hope where there was only despair. This God can act much more powerfully than we can. So when we hear the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel, “Peace I leave you, my peace I give you,” our first response might be to sit back and wait. Since Jesus has promised peace, we can suppose that Jesus will establish peace. So we respond, “Good, thank you, bring it on! Give us peace!”
But we also know that in other places in the gospels Jesus calls us to be peacemakers. In the beatitudes he says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” So who is expected to make peace—Jesus or us? Obviously when you look at the entirety of the scriptures, it becomes clear that Jesus does not intend to give peace by himself. The achievement of peace is something in which he calls us to participate. We are in a partnership with God, called to bring about peace into our world.
Certainly our world needs peace. A recent research document verified that there has not been a single day since World War II in which there was peace in the world—not a single day without some kind of armed conflict happening in some place. Today there is violence in Syria, in Iraq, and in so many parts of Africa. In all of these places what we find is not peace but violence. Therefore, it is easy to conclude—and indeed many have—that peace will never come to this world. This view would ask us to prepare ourselves for day after day of war.
Yet Jesus promises to give us peace. Is his promise realistic? Only if we realize that his peace is not a gift, but a project that we will work on together. It is very important to understand what this partnership entails. It is not an equal arrangement. As I said, God has much more power than we do. How then should we divide up the work? There are so many places in our world where efforts to achieve peace are beyond our control. There we must leave peacemaking to God. When, however, we discover areas of violence under our own influence, it is then that we must act. We might not be able to stop violence or war in Syria or give comfort to the thousands of refugees in camps around the world, but we can choose to refrain from violent language in our home, to instill understanding and patience at work or at school, to forgive someone who has hurt us. These are our actions of peacemaking. They may seem very small compared to the large efforts towards world peace. But we are in a partnership. God does the big things, and we contribute what we can by our actions against violence. So we should never undermine or negate the small efforts that we can offer. We should believe that God will use our small efforts at peacemaking as a part of his larger plan to save the world.
I believe that the day will come when there will be world peace. When that day arrives, it will certainly be God’s work. But we are God’s partners. That is why we must become peacemakers today.
May 1, 2016
In 1888 a man came down for breakfast in his home in Stockholm, Sweden. When he opened the morning newspaper he was shocked to find his own obituary. Through a confusion of names, his death had been falsely reported to the local paper. The editors quickly put together information for his death notice. This was not a difficult thing to do, because the man in question was a famous scientist. He had devised the formula for dynamite which, at that time, was the most powerful explosive in the world. So this man had the rare opportunity to read himself what other people would say about him at his death. And what they said was not good. The title of the obituary was The Merchant of Death Dies. It continued, “The man who became rich by finding ways to kill more people more quickly than ever before, died himself yesterday.” The scientist was appalled to realize that he would be remembered as the “merchant of death.” He resolved at that moment to spend the rest of his life trying to change his legacy. He used his considerable fortune to promote efforts of peace and human advancement. In the end he was successful. The scientist was Alfred Nobel. We know him today, not as the inventor of dynamite, nor as the merchant of death, but as the founder of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Now Alfred Nobel wanted to become an agent of peace to change what people thought about him. We, as followers of Jesus, have an even greater motivation to be peacemakers. In today’s gospel Jesus gives his disciples his peace as his final gift to them. That gift is meant to be shared. Jesus’ peace is not simply a personal gift to make us feel calm and reduce our worries. Jesus’ peace is a call to make peace a greater reality in our world.
Now we do not have the ability to change the course of international events. We cannot stop ISIS from engaging in terrorism or end the war in Syria. But each one of us, every day, makes choices that either foster or harm the peace around us.
How do we deal with the members of our own family? Do we tease our brothers and sisters and fight with them? Do we speak to our spouse in a way that is unfair and hurtful? Jesus gives us his peace so that we can be peacemakers in our families, to treat the people in our lives with the respect and dignity they deserve. How do we deal with the people at school or work? Do we use our influence with our friends to put other people down? Do we use our authority or our knowledge on the job to make things easier for us at other people’s expense? Jesus gives us his peace so that we can be peacemakers, so we can find ways to work together and cooperate with one another without leaving anyone behind.
The present political campaign for President is gearing up to be one of the most negative and divisive in American history. How do we use our influence with the people around us politically? Do we speak in ways that inflame partisanship and anger? Jesus gives us his gift of peace so that we can be peacemakers, so we can influence family and friends to make political decisions that will promote understanding and the common good.
We do not have the resources to found an international monetary prize for peace. But we can be peacemakers. We can take the peace that Jesus give us and use it to move the world one step closer to the kingdom of God.
God’s in Love with This World
May 26, 2019
For twenty-eight years I have stood here on almost every weekend to lead us in prayer and to break open God’s Word. Many of you here have heard me preach hundreds of times, and we have spoken about many things. But what shall we speak of today, on this last day we are together? Today we should speak about what is most important. Today we will speak about God, because our faith rests not on our actions but on God’s actions, our freedom depends not on our mercy but on God’s mercy, our hope derives not from our love but from God’s love.
The reason we believe, the reason St. Noel exists as a parish community is to proclaim that God is real and that God is with us. Jesus says this today in the gospel. He says that he and the Father love us and they will come and dwell with us. God dwells with us! That truth is not always obvious. But whenever we can see it and claim it, it changes everything. It allows us to be so much more thankful for our life, our family, our friends. It gives us strength so that we can face loss, sickness, and pain. It gives us hope that, no matter how compromised our lives may be, we carry the promise of joy for all eternity.
So in the most fundamental way it is not about me. It is not about you. It’s not even about us. It is about God dwelling with us. And if over the time I have been your pastor I have been able to help you see that mystery more clearly and claim it more deeply, then I am content.
God is real. God is with us. And since that is the truth, it makes some sense to end like this:
[This song follows:]
I see trees of green, red roses too
I see them bloom for me and you
And I say to myself God’s in love with this world.
I see skies of blue and clouds of white
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
And I say to myself God’s in love with this world.
The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces of people going by
I see friends shaking hands saying how do you do
They’re really saying I love you
I hear babies cry, I’ve watched them grow
They’ll learn much more than I’ll never know
And I say to myself God’s in love with this world.
And I say to myself God’s in love with this world.